Be The Blessing
Dr Rebecca Williams Dinsdale tells us how she learned about joyous resilience at an early age and built a career around it and how the whole of her journey has been around finding the electricity up your feet feeling.
How do you identify as being disabled and what does it mean to you?
I have Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) which has been so severe that I need to use a wheelchair. Sometimes I look well and I’m able to function, but I have a very restricted life that is very carefully managed to safeguard my physical health. If everything is aligned then I can cope, but if I fall off that tightrope – and there are a huge number of factors to take into account – then I can become very ill very quickly and become both housebound and bedbound.
I have had a lot of experience of illness. My Mum had early onset dementia in her 50s, which was beyond horrific. As the patron of Headlight, a Sunderland mental health charity, I’ve seen a whole breadth of problems that are very disabling even though those people don’t have visible physical disabilities.
Everything in my life has been the result of protracted extreme illness. It has restricted so many normal things but also made me understand that there are tiny treasures in every day. I’ve been dominated by illness but I won’t be defined by it. There had to be some loving purpose from it all and that is why I offer my books and coaching.
Tell us a little about your business, why you set it up and how you got started.
I offer coaching, counselling and have written several books. Before the pandemic I was a Celebrant and specialized in writing and conducting loving funerals. I have never had a “9-5” job because I was never had sustainable physical health to manage it.
Everything seems to have started when I was seven, I took my first school assembly. I can’t remember what it was about now but obviously I’d written something of worth, so my teacher had me read it out. I was terrified, but I remember that it felt so alive, like I had electricity flying up my feet that powered the words. The whole of my story is really about the journey back to that feeling and illness has been a meandering detour.
I had a very active, healthy childhood. Then I got glandular fever when I was 17. That’s how ME starts for many people: there’s an onslaught to the immune system, whether it’s a viral infection, an accident, a car crash or a chemical overload. I pushed myself to get well because I wanted to get back to school, get good A-levels and go to University, so I didn’t allow myself to rest and that made it a million times worse. I went from being poorly on the sofa to being unable to function. I couldn’t even shower because I was so frail alongside a raging throat and body. Every muscle hurt, every joint hurt and there was a constant crushing headache. It felt as though everything was slipping away from me: I couldn’t go to school to do my A-levels, which in turn meant no University and if your biggest achievement of the week is having a shower then it’s pretty devastating.
I had about four months off school and then I managed to go back and did one A-level, attending two hours a week. I would get a taxi to school which would drop me right by the door of the classroom, my friend would carry my bag into the classroom for me and I’d sit leaning against the wall so the wall could prop me up, then I’d do the lesson and then they’d just throw me back in the taxi. Everyone was very kind to me. My school leaders and teachers were magnificent.
Our plan was that I’d do a third year in sixth form to do the other two A-levels which would give me time to get completely well and then go to University. I got worse. I went to school for that second term, trying to do two A-levels and ended up having a terrible infection and couldn’t go back to school. I realised then that I couldn’t do two A-levels at once, so I did one on my own – I didn’t go to any lessons, I just had a big textbook and I just did what I could. Learning to cope by myself at that early age was a blessing and that is now the basis of all the things I teach my clients. I help them navigate their way through unrelenting challenge.
I did very well in my A-levels and I was still desperate to go to University. I live near Durham, Newcastle and Sunderland Universities and I was offered places at all three, but I had to go to Sunderland because I couldn’t drive or sit up in a car to get to Newcastle or Durham, plus there was nowhere to park and all the buildings were too old and had steps At Sunderland we had a special needs officer: her name was Sue and she was absolutely wonderful.
I did my degree on 1/6 time. In the first year, I went for three weeks, had another massive infection and went to hospital for the rest of the year. It was grim and I did the exam on my own in the end with all the re-sitters. Lots of people told me it wasn’t worth it, I was the joke of the place – but I wasn’t the joke when I went to 1/3 time or 2/3 time with loads of treatment and wise management and eventually I graduated top of my year. I had such wonderful help to make it possible. I always tell my clients that there is treasure in their 1/6th efforts!
There were two blessings that came out of that time. Firstly, I learned all the tools and coping skills that I now teach to my coaching and counselling clients; secondly, the University saw how hard I was trying and asked me to give talks to new post-graduate students about how to keep going through their courses and that was another of those electricity up your feet moments for which I had been searching.
When I finished my degree, my University offered me a place on a Master’s degree and then a Doctorate, both of which I completed part-time. Throughout these years I was still having between 12- 40 weeks a year in bed or in hospital and then the rest of the time I still wasn’t well or able like everybody else, so I wasn’t employable. I might have had a very good degree, but there was very little I could do. I felt very frustrated because my physical health was so unreliable: if I got a cold, I would have to spend three weeks in bed.
At the end of my studies, I was 36 and wondering how I could make some contribution to the world. I made a list of the things that I might be able to do that would be useful. By the end of the doctorate and doing all those talks for the University, I knew that I could speak and write and quietly inspire. I thought I could maybe write, speak and be some kind of helpful coach and essentially I’ve done that for ten years.
I wrote my first book, Lifejoy: Your Manual for Resilient Living, about all the things that might help people to cope through the stages of life, whatever their physical and mental health levels. I’ve done lots of motivational talks and speeches. I’ve seen great courage and capabilities in the frailest souls. My purpose is to celebrate goodness and help clients see their immense worth.
I’ve always had coaching and counseling clients because they didn’t care if I could walk or run, they just wanted wisdom and help. The clients who come to me who are generally very capable women who are self-employed and carrying an invisible load like dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia or chronic illness, and/or they’re often looking after an unwell relative – I say that they’re holding up the world. They come to me once a week or fortnight for just an hour and I help them with their coping strategies and their confidence in themselves to carry on. They are very giving people, but they need some backup because they’re the backup for everybody else. They’re exhausted, they’ve held the world up for so long and then something has broken their back: their child’s sick or their mother-in-law’s suddenly ill or they’re managing challenges or whatever.
I always try and help my clients see their own worth and then we explore what can we do to make it a bit less bad. I used to say, “What can we do to make it better?” but I think that asking, “How we can make it a bit less bad?” is a much more powerful question, because sometimes you can’t have perfection, only a good intention and wise effort.
During the last decade as a Celebrant, I’ve conducted nearly a thousand funeral services. I was able to help people at their very worst time because my Mum a horrific degenerative illness, I had a Father who had severe chronic illness and I had experienced it too. I was useful because I’d had so much trouble, a unique balance of empathy, experience and education. I could help people with their loss and transform some of their grief. The services that I took were full of love, hope and gratitude.
When the pandemic hit, I was told to shield. It was disheartening, because I felt I’d worked so hard and made so many sacrifices to manage to be self-employed. I lost so much of it overnight, but I’m very resilient and I teach people to have huge fortitude, so I started over again. I wrote two more books. I couldn’t go out and do funerals, which broke my heart, and I couldn’t go out and do talks anymore, so I increased my coaching and counseling clients and I felt like I had electricity up my feet again. The book that was written through the first lockdown was a ‘thought for the day’ type of book called: “Your Lifejoy Year: An Enriching Thought for Every Day.”
What would you consider your greatest achievement or your proudest moment?
I would say caring for my Mother was my greatest achievement: it was an enduringly difficult for so long. It was unrelenting for 14 years. She was so thoughtful and generous – she would send me to school with extra money for the kids who couldn’t afford to go on the school trip. She was such a blessing to her pupils and us. It was desperate to see her suffer so much and having to navigate the care system was brutal, because she was undiagnosed, untreated and unmedicated for three years because no one believed us, then her body deteriorated and that was hellish. I had to battle hard for her care and be an advocate for her, whilst trying to hold my head up so I didn’t drown. My Father was heroic in his devotion to her whilst very unwell himself. My husband helped us so much and our friends were wonderful. The team of carers that loved her through those years were magnificent. We will always be grateful for their professionalism and grace.
I took my Mother’s funeral and the funeral itself was easier than the previous 14 years. Our Church was packed. The front rows were full of my clients: I had done their Mothers’ funerals and they came to my Mother’s funeral. Their love sustained me and still does.
Who or what inspires you?
Brave people who have endured a great deal and still look to contribute. My Gran was one of them and the story of her epic life is the focus of my next book: “Inspiring Ivy: Courage and Care in China and Beyond.” I used to think achievement meant being top of the class or getting a good degree or a posh job. I am pleased for the people who can do that, but having done all those funeral services and heard the trajectory of thousands of people’s lives, I now don’t value external success at all. I’m inspired by anybody who struggles and just does their best. It’s the people who have kept their temper, who have not become embittered, who have tried to do something despite tragic long-term adversity: I hold them as the absolute beacons.
If you could change one thing about society’s perception of disability, what would it be?
The first thing is to thank God for your health and talents that you have: treasure what you have and don’t take it for granted.
Secondly, try to contribute as much as you can. If you’re fit and well then you are blessed beyond measure: just being able to share a little mental generosity or a physical kindness transforms lives. When we’re thoughtful and generous, we can change the world.
Thirdly, don’t make things accessible, make them inclusive. We need to approach the world from the lowest possible functioning level, not the highest and then expect other people to adapt. We set the tone and it needs to be the wisest possible for everyone.
You could probably sum it all up as ~ “Count your blessings and be the blessing.”
Dr Rebecca’s website is www.drrebecca.org.uk
Call her today for a free discovery call ~ 0750 4815638
and see how you can rediscover your life’s joy.